Who's influential? Key opinion leaders, again and still, marketers say

Key opinion leaders, or KOLs, is still the preferred term for physician influencers, a new survey finds, despite chatter to the contrary.

It looks as if the pharma industry is stuck with key opinion leaders. That’s according to a new survey designed to find out if the term was still accurate and appropriate to describe influential physicians and other healthcare providers.

The answer was a resounding yes. More than 62% of industry executives said KOL is the term their companies use to describe those influential healthcare providers. Fifty percent also agreed that KOL is the best term to describe them. Another 47% disagreed, and 3% were unsure.

Samuel Dyer, Ph.D., CEO of the Medical Science Liaison Society, said the group decided to field the study after hearing at conferences that the KOL term was out of date. Some medical affairs and MSL professionals saw KOL as a pharma-driven commercial term—and better or more accurate terminology was needed.

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However, it turned out the dissenters were in the minority. Even among those who didn't prefer the term KOL, there was no agreement on a replacement. They offered a wide range of terms instead.

For instance, when asked how best to describe physician influencers, fewer than half (42%) still said KOL—but among the rest, no other term came even close. The next-highest suggestion—"thought leader"—garnered 14%, followed by “medical expert” at 13%. Other terms winning a thumbs-up, albeit at 6% or fewer, were external expert, key thought leader, opinion leader, therapeutic area expert, healthcare provider and scientific expert.

Dyer’s group had rounded up a list of 15 possible alternatives for feedback, by asking pharma executives and others which alternatives they'd heard. It’s worth noting, he said, that six of those choices were selected by not a single one of the 780 survey participants.

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The MSL Society double-checked its work by talking to several outside sources that work with pharma companies. The outside companies told Dyer that, even when they are asked to use an alternative term in presentations and in materials submitted, it doesn't stick. “[I]nevitably, during every single discussion,” the companies trying to switch from KOLs themselves revert back to the industry's common denominator.

Next up, Dyer said the society will test its own nomenclature. It’s prepping a survey to find out whether “medical science liaison” is still the right term for their own jobs.